The special counsel investigation into the 2016 presidential election, headed up by former FBI director Robert Mueller III, has been a highly secretive process.Even now, two years in, we know almost nothing about the inner-workings of Mueller’s team.
However, we have had access to the trials of several Trump cronies, including his former lawyer Michael Cohen, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, and national security director Michael Flynn. Connecting the dots between these cases remains our best strategy for understanding the tight-lipped process.
Let’s start with Cohen, who has revealed extensive information about the Trump campaign and businesses. Notably, Cohen’s emails contain an exchange with Russian businessman Felix Sater in which Sater wrote, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.” Cohen later emailed a Russian government official for the same reason, and he also received a suspicious $1 million contract from Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch close to Putin.
Manafort, on the other hand, refused to cooperate at all until he was convicted of eight felony counts this summer; his change of heart seems fueled by doubts that Trump will actually use executive power to pardon him as a reward for his loyalty. Manafort has apparently provided prosecutors with information regarding the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, during which a Moscow lawyer swore to deliver “damaging information about Hillary Clinton on the Kremlin’s behalf.” Another Russian organizer promised “very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Other attendees include Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., the latter of whom responded to the promises by saying, “If it’s what you say I love it.”
Most alarming is the evidence that the meeting was used to establish a signal between Trump and the Russians. On July 17th 2016, Trump publicly announced: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails [of Hillary Clinton’s] that are missing.” Incredibly, Russian hackers made their first attempt to break into Clinton’s private servers mere hours later.
Papadopoulos, Flynn and Gates also had extensive involvement with Russians while working for the Trump campaign. The day after he fired Michael Flynn, Trump asked former FBI director James Comey to close the investigation into him; Flynn had been accused of lying about having discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak. Papadopoulos, too, lied repeatedly to the FBI about negotiating sanctions with Russians — as well as lying about being told by Joseph Mifsud, who was working on behalf of the Russian government, that they had “thousands of emails” from Clinton.
Gates, on the other hand, has been charged with soliciting foreign proposals to interfere with the 2016 presidential election through intensive social media influence campaigns. In addition, the Trump campaign hired a firm which worked with Cambridge Analytica to target voters by exploiting the personal Facebook data of over 50 million Americans.
In terms of obstruction of justice, we know that Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey during after his unsuccessful demands for Comey’s loyalty. Trump initially claimed he didn’t fire Comey because of the investigation, but he later told NBC: “And, in fact, when I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said: 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.”
Similarly, Trump’s recent firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, mere hours after the midterms, appears suspicious given his frequent tweets about Sessions’ recusal: “The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn’t tell me he was going to recuse himself… I would have quickly picked someone else.”
In replacing Sessions, Trump skipped Senate confirmations and installed a completely unqualified Trump loyalist named Matthew Whitaker rather than appoint Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Whitaker’s conflict of interest is obvious given his previous proclamations that the “special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt.” His appointment bears an uncanny resemblance to Brett Kavanaugh, given Kavanaugh’s convenient and truly unusual legal opinion that Congress should “consider a law exempting a president — while in office — from criminal prosecution and investigation.”
Moreover, many have drawn parallels between Trump’s alignment with Whitaker and the grounds of Richard Nixon’s impeachment articles. Nixon was charged with obstruction of justice due to improper contact with a DOJ official supervising the Watergate investigation; in the exact same way, some of Trump’s recent comments suggest that Whitaker may be secretly feeding him information about the Mueller investigation.
Things are reaching a tipping point. Rachel Maddow has speculated that a sealed case in the D.C. Appeals Court might involve Mueller’s prosecutors asking for grand jury approval to send a report to the House Judiciary Committee for potential impeachment proceedings; it would be the exact process used in Watergate. The evidence backing her theory is strong: Trump-appointed judge Gregory Katsas is the only judge to recuse from the case, Mueller's lawyers have been seen going in and out of the court, and the Democrats are poised to take over the House in January.
Given all of that context, we have an important question to consider:
If impeachment hearings are eventually brought against Trump, will our already-fragile political landscape collapse into total chaos?
With so many legal precedents having already been broken in the last two years, and with the legislative and judicial branches doing so little to check executive power, I wonder whether our system is strong enough to sustain contentious impeachment hearings without going up in flames.
Furthermore, Trump’s populism has relied upon constant calls to violence. The FBI reported that there were more hate crimes on November 9, days after Trump’s election, than any other day in 2016; and, overall, they say that hate crimes increased by at least 17% in 2017. The anti-Semitic Pittsburg shooter was allegedly influenced by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the mail bomber was a “fervent” Trump-supporter who targeted Democrats that Trump regularly derides. These events reveal a seething culture of rage brewing in far-right circles.
I, for one, do not expect Trump’s supporters to tolerate impeachment hearings without putting up one hell of a fight. Trump himself will probably do everything he can to stoke resentful far-right radicalism. We need to start thinking seriously about how a Trump impeachment could profoundly escalate partisan violence and political upheaval.
Frankly, we should be prepared for things to get much, much worse before they start to get better.